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Descent

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Part One

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Even as he watched his feet step inexorably down the twisting, narrow spiral staircase, Justin wondered dimly what the hell he was doing. It was a distant sort of incredulity, the sort he’d feel reading about a long-ago catastrophe happening to someone else, something remote and not related directly to him. Yet these were his feet moving steadily down a creaking wooden stairwell that was growing darker with every step. These were his hands drifting lightly and confidently down the cool iron handrail, not grasping, not hesitant at all.

He should feel some fear, he thought dreamily. He was going into forbidden areas of the Order’s archives and breaking some important rules in doing so. There were reasons for the rules, and even if he didn’t know what the reasons were he had plenty of respect for them. He’d been part of the Order for over a year, and a full-fledged novice for more than nine months now, and while he’d chafed at the rules more than once he’d never broken any of them. And it would be many years before he was allowed to enter the levels of the archives he was descending to now.

Justin shuddered but he didn’t hesitate as he reached the bottom of the stair and turned left, his eyes still on his feet as they stepped steadily across a hallway and to the top of another steep spiral stair. His mind drifted fitfully, a part of him convinced that he was still in the well-lit library three stacks up, surrounded by the scent and feel of old and lovingly cared-for books, his mind firmly on his latest research project. There had been a fire crackling warmly in the large stone fireplace, the furniture was comfortable wood and leather, the books had been heavy and comforting under his hands as he made notes on the Tahitian prophets. If his research was good enough perhaps he would be allowed to make this investigative trip without supervision, he thought vaguely as he continued his path deeper into the archives. He had plenty of time to prepare, he could give it his very best shot.

His mind skittered away from the fact that if he were caught in the lower archives -- and in a house full of people with psychic abilities, how could he avoid detection? -- any field investigations would be a long, long way off.

Yet Justin never deviated from his even pace, his eyes half-closed as he descended steadily into the darkening caverns of the Order’s archives. Dimly he knew that he was reacting to one of the books that he’d picked up, a heavy untitled leather tome with shredded edges and fine, faded paper, which had inexplicably gotten mixed in with his research books. It had borne a fine velum label on the binding that had marked it as belonging to the lower stacks, books that were still out of Justin’s reach. Had it been misplaced? Had he picked it off the shelf by accident? Had it been left on the table by another, less careful scholar? All Justin knew was that the book had been heavy and welcoming in his hands, and that when he’d touched it the book had fallen open almost eagerly to a single page.

The page was covered with what looked like a pen-and-ink sketch of an old portrait featuring a young, very handsome man. It was fuzzy and of a poor quality, but something about it had captured Justin’s attention. He didn’t know how long he’d stared at the page. Long enough for the dim afternoon light to fade from the tall, deep windows. Long enough for the library, which never closed here in the Order’s London house, to empty as the hour grew late. Long enough for his limbs to grow stiff, so that his legs tingled and burned when he finally rose, mind curiously blank, and began his steady descent down into the archives.

Chris had told him more than once that there were fantastic treasures to be seen in the lower archives below the main library, dangerous things locked away for safety. Artifacts from real hauntings, marble statues that had manifested actual physical reactions, relics from ancient times and historical events that still hummed with power. He’d offered these things to Justin as an incentive to work harder, study longer, strive for the advanced membership in the Order so he could have access to these things and to the greater investigations of them. These were the things Justin’s ambitious nature craved. But Chris’s stories only made Justin more impatient.

He continued his steady progress, at last coming to the final, forbidden level of the Order’s archives. His eyes watched his careful steps, but his mind was filled with the sketch of the portrait he’d seen in the book, the slender young man sprawled easily in what had seemed to be a large, black chair. One leg crossed over the opposite knee, one hand cradling the side of his head, it was far too casual a pose for the period suggested by his clothing, the ruffled shirt, the dark, severely cut coat, the heavy ring on the long slender finger of his left hand. The sketch had been poor indeed, or perhaps the original portrait had been substandard, but there was something about the face, the half-smile and the bright eyes that leapt off the page, holding Justin completely in thrall.

He was in almost complete darkness now, with only the dimmest of lights far above him. Justin drifted down the spiral staircase, and of its own volition his hand reached to the wall where a light switch waited.

The lights sprang on, an entire series of them stretching down a very long and empty corridor. There were doors evenly spaced on either side, neatly labeled with an index system that Justin could not decipher, would not be allowed to know for many years. He was utterly alone, his quiet footsteps completely muffled by the thick carpeting even this far below. He paced down the corridor, passing doorway after doorway until he came to a stop before one.

It was a wooden door like any of the others in the corridor, the same size, the same shape, the same indecipherable label on a bronze plaque. It would be locked -- he knew everything down here would and should be locked, but Justin was not surprised when he turned the handle and the door opened easily. It should creak, he thought dimly, like any good horror movie door. His stomach tightened with suppressed laughter even as sweat broke out on his forehead, and he realized that he was terrified.

The light from the hallway behind him illuminated a small neat room that smelled heavily of dust and stale air. There was a small metal filing cabinet, several storage boxes, a tall wardrobe made of heavy oak. And on the wall to his right there was a large portrait, covered completely in a thick black cloth. He stared at it, feeling his heart pound heavily in his chest and echo in his ears.

He should not be here. He should return to the main level immediately and talk to Chris or any of his superiors, admit to entering the forbidden archives, relate this entire strange incident to them. He pictured himself doing it, closing the heavy wooden door, retracing his steps back to the spiral staircase, turning off the light and leaving everything on this level in the darkness where it belonged. It was so real that he gasped in surprise to find that he had in fact entered the dark room, that his hands were bunched in the cloth draped over the portrait on the wall, that he was stepping back and pulling the cloth with him.

The light from the corridor slanted harshly into the room, illuminating a narrow stripe of the painting. And of course it was the same portrait, Justin thought, hysteria bubbling at the edges of his mind. It was the same man, it was the same portrait, but now there were colors that hinted at the vivid blues and greens of his eyes, the pale luster of his skin, the full pink lips.

Justin realized that his breath had grown short, that his heart was pounding as if he’d sprinted a kilometer. Alarm splintered through him, making him shudder, and it was his suddenly buckling knees that forced him to finally tear his eyes away from the dark haired man in the old portrait.

As soon as he did the spell was broken. The enormity of what he’d done flooded him with horror and he scrambled out of the room, pulling the door securely shut behind him. For a moment he hesitated, his thoughts in chaotic disorder as he laid one hand on the surface of the wooden door, eyes closed as he saw again the man’s eyes in the portrait. They seemed to know him, he thought semi-hysterically. They seemed to know him very well.

With a gasp he flung himself away from the door, ricocheting almost drunkenly against the opposite wall as he stumbled and then ran to the spiral staircase at the end of the corridor. He hit the light switch without slowing down and leaped directly on to the stairs, sprinting frantically up them three at a time. By the time he reached the main level of the library he was gasping for breath and closer to tears than any twenty-three year old man would ever admit to.

He stopped in the hallway, ducking into one of the library’s remote aisles to compose himself should he meet any of the other members of his Order. He drew deep breaths, calming his racing heart. His shirt was damp with sweat, and the hand he wiped across his forehead was still shaking. He caught a glimpse of his watch and stared -- it had been more than five hours since he’d sat down with his research materials and notebooks in the main library. What the hell had just happened to him?

Justin took another deep breath, fighting the urge to go back down the stairs, stifling crazed thoughts about taking the portrait from the archive and hanging it in his own room. One more deep breath as he walked into the sitting room where his books and backpack were neatly stacked, exactly where he’d left them. He would look at the book again, he would find out more about the mysterious man. Perhaps there would be something that would tell him who and what he was, explain why his likeness had exerted such a strong pull on Justin.

But when he returned to his chair in the silent and deserted library the mysterious leather-bound book was gone. He stared in disbelief, rifling frantically through his research books, looking under the table, in his messenger bag. Gone. He slumped heavily into the deep leather chair and stared at the space on the table where the book had been.

"Hey." Chris’s voice pierced the quiet room like an arrow, and Justin jumped, startled. His thoughts swirled in confusion and an inexplicable panic, and he struggled to suppress them, to make his expression smooth. Suddenly it was of paramount importance to hide what he’d just done.

"Whoa there," Chris said, hands out. "Sorry, man. Didn’t mean to scare you."

"You didn’t scare me," Justin said automatically, even as he clutched a hand to his galloping heart. "You almost killed me, but scared? No, not at all."

Chris laughed, but his eyes were sharp. "Pretty late to be doing research, isn’t it?" he inquired casually, but his eyes were keen on Justin’s pale face, the black circles under his eyes. "Looks like you’ve been hitting it pretty hard."

Justin forced a smile, getting to his feet and gathering his materials to him. "Pretty hard," he said, injecting humor into his voice with an effort. "Right up to the part where I fell asleep."

Chris’s eyebrows rose. "Well, that must have been some dream you were having, because I . . ."

"And if you tell me you felt a strange disturbance in the force, I won’t be responsible for my actions," Justin threatened, and felt huge relief when Chris laughed delightedly.

"Fine, I won’t say it," he said agreeably, and Justin missed the way his dark eyes narrowed on him as he bent to pick up his books. "You all done here?"

"Yeah," Justin answered, carefully placing his glasses in their case and stacking his notebooks. He stretched until his back cracked sharply, making Chris wince. "I’m going to hit it. See you tomorrow, right?"

"Right," Chris said, shooing him away. He watched Justin’s form as he walked out of the library, and when he was gone Chris turned to look at the hallway leading to the restricted archives, his eyes puzzled and dark.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC closed his eyes as the blood spread over his tongue: thick, warm, and metallic, it sang its way through his body. He was half hard already, and as the woman in his arms gasped and struggled, her small fists hammering desperately against his back, he grew harder still. Oh, there were so many things he wanted to do, so many sweet games he could play, but this was his first kill of the night, and he was taut and hungry -- plus, he was in a grimy, trash-filled alley. It was unlike him to kill in such an ugly, public place, but when he'd seen her from across the street, JC hadn't been able to resist: curvy and pale with chestnut-brown hair, she'd reminded him powerfully of someone he'd taken great pleasure in a while back. That had been a particularly delicious kill, and if this woman could in any way bring that feeling back, JC wanted her.

And so before he'd really even thought about it, he'd neatly crossed the road, dragged her into the alley, and smiled down at her, letting her see his fangs. She'd wanted to scream then, but he'd stroked her hair and murmured soothingly to her, staring deeply into her eyes and she’d subsided. He didn’t take her as deeply as he could have because he wanted her to fight; he needed her to struggle for him.

And oh, she had, and she was gorgeous, and she wasn't going to be able to stand for much longer; JC realized, and nearly moaned in excitement. As she began to sag against him, her legs wobbling madly on her high heels, he half-dragged, half carried her across the alley and backed her hard into the brick wall of the building in front of them. Her head rolled weakly against the dirty wall and JC pinned her with his hips, letting her feel his erection, and then looked deep into her eyes and gripped her shoulders with his hands so he could gently slide his thumbs over her collarbones and trace the beautiful curved lines they made. Her eyes were wide open, and her lips moved a bit, but she couldn't speak -- she was much too weak now.

"Relax, Bobbie," JC whispered although it wasn't her name, and then kissed her thoroughly, taking his time and letting her taste her own blood on his tongue. She wasted the little strength she had left in a desperate last attempt to try to fight him off, which only made it that much more delightful to slowly, teasingly kiss and lick his way back down to the punctures in her throat so he could drink more. It felt so good, and he wanted to -- oh god, why hadn't he taken her to his room? He needed so much more time with her.

"Would you hurry up?" said an annoyed voice from the other end of the alley.

JC lifted his head, neatly licking the blood from his lips, and glared hard at Lance as his victim shuddered and moaned a little bit, her head lolling forward onto his shoulder. JC stepped back, held her away from him a little bit. He didn't want to get blood on his shirt.

"Shh, honey," he murmured gently when she whimpered again, probably trying to ask Lance for help. "It's all right."

"Seriously, JC. Now," Lance said.

JC stuck out his arm and glanced at his watch. "You're early. You said eleven, and it's still ten till."

"Your watch isn't working," Lance said flatly. "Look -- just kill her and get it over with okay? I hate it when you play with your food."

"Liar," JC said, and then slowly bent his head again and listened to Lance's sharp intake of breath as he drank quickly and fiercely. And then he just let it happen, no playing, no going into her mind, just simple straightforward hunger assuaged. After the woman had drawn her last breath, JC let her slide to the ground and then stood very still and braced his hand against the wall for a moment, not quite shivering but too overwhelmed to move or speak while the pleasure radiated through his body.

"Sensualist," Lance mocked softly, fondly.

JC looked down and breathed deep, then shook his head, straightened up, and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to snap out of it. He hated being weak, hated letting Lance see him like this.

Lance moved quietly and surely across the alley to crouch before JC's victim, the gold in his hair glinting in the dim glow of the streetlight. He looked flushed and satisfied, so he'd already fed.

"Oh my," he said in amusement, running a hand through the woman's chestnut hair. "Yet another trip down memory lane."

JC shrugged.

"You're so cute when you're predictable," Lance said, then gestured to the woman's feet. "C'mon."

JC groaned a little, then moved into place and grabbed her by the ankles. He hated cleanup.

"If I get sick from eating too fast, it's your fault," he told Lance, as they staggered toward the dumpster.

Lance gave him a quick assessing glance. "You'll be just fine," he said, and then turned halfway around to flip open the dumpster

"Okay," JC said as the lid fell shut again. "Now it really is eleven o'clock. What's the game?"

Lance grinned but didn't say anything, just beckoned for JC to follow him and led them out of the alley.

They walked slowly and easily through the street, not looking at each other but perfectly in step, a habit borne of years and years of friendship. JC closed his eyes for just a second and enjoyed the aftershocks as the blood spread through his body, warmed him. They were in the nightclub district, and the clubs were just beginning to fill. The people he saw were relatively neat and together, but soon they'd be drunk, clumsy, and pliable, which was exactly how JC and Lance wanted them.

As they moved in front of an upscale club with an annoying neon sign, Lance put a hand on JC's arm to still him, then quirked an eyebrow.

"Yes, and?" JC said.

Lance leaned in and murmured, "Kill inside, as many as you can get without arousing suspicion or commotion. High number wins. Okay?"

JC raised eyebrows. "I can't believe you actually want to try this again, especially after Madrid."

"Let's just say I feel lucky tonight," Lance said as they walked to the front of the line of people and were waved in by Todd, the bouncer, who was absolutely gorgeous. For quite some time now JC had thought that he'd make one hell of a kill, but he and Lance had decided not to take people who could be of some use to them, and it was quite nice not to have to stand outside when they could be inside hunting.

JC winced a bit as he stepped into the club: humans always had their music too loud for vampire ears. He rummaged in the pocket of his jacket and then groaned as he realized he'd forgotten earplugs.

"Okay, then," Lance said, eyes already locked on the crowd, searching hungrily. "I'll see you in a while."

"Lance," JC said softly so only he could hear, and Lance slowly turned around to face him.

"This time, try to make it last for more than ten minutes, okay?"

"Very funny," Lance said, and then weaved into the crowd.

JC walked around the periphery of the room; he liked to watch a while before moving in. The club was decorated in red and pink and reminded him of a very bad valentine, but the people who came here were delectable: warm, eager, and clueless, lots of very young, very stupid rich kids, amazingly easy marks. JC sank onto an empty sofa and closed eyes for just a second, reveling in the scent of so many bodies moving together, so much blood and sweat under one roof. When he opened them again, there was a woman staring in fascination at him: she was tall and willowy in a tight black dress, and the red and white lights of the club were flashing in random patterns all over her body. Some nights it was so damn easy.

JC watched her for a few seconds, arched an eyebrow and waited patiently, smiling a little bit as she walked toward him, not really sure why she was doing it but not able to stop herself either. Quickly, JC scanned the room. Lance was already dancing with someone. He'd have to work fast.

"Hi," JC said as she sat down next to him, careful to keep his voice soft and welcoming.

"Hey," she said, and JC liked her immediately: her voice was confident and sexy, and her dress was cut very, very low.

JC smiled at her again and watched her eyes grow wide. Humans tended to find him very beautiful. "Man," he said. "This place is so --"

"Over the top?" she suggested, and JC nodded.

"I almost just want to sit here all night and watch people," she said.

"We could do that," JC answered, and she grinned up at him.

"What're you drinking?" he asked, looking into her eyes and lifting a hand to stop a waiter who was walking by. JC ordered her a vodka tonic and a beer for himself. He wouldn't drink it unless he absolutely had to, but it was useful to pretend.

As the waiter brought their drinks, JC made sure to look into her eyes and enchant her just a little bit, not so much that she'd be groggy, because that would make this too easy, but enough so that she'd probably not do any screaming. This was where Lance always went wrong: he was so awkward sometimes, strangely uncomfortable with the dance of seduction. Lance was much better at fast, efficient killing, which made his continuing desire to try to win this game even more amusing.

JC and his new friend inclined heads and talked: she was called Kathryn and she was very young and very pretty. She thought the woman over by the bar had on the most ridiculous dress ever and that the couple on the edge of the dance floor absolutely had to be on an awkward first date -- furthermore, if it were up to her, there would be laws against haircuts like the one on the guy who'd tried to chat her up earlier tonight. She was funny and sharp and JC thought that if he had time to get to know her, he'd probably like her very much.

However, the game was afoot, and he'd have to move quickly. JC was just about to lean in and brush Kathryn's long hair away from the side of her neck, when he felt the soft pressure of her hand on his thigh, watched her sway toward him a bit, her breasts lovely and full against the low neckline of her dress. JC caught his breath in pleasure and surprise -- so gorgeous of her to make the first move, to participate in her own destruction. He looked hungrily at her for a few seconds, watched her begin to tremble, and then easily bent down to press her back into the cushions and kiss her. Out of the corner of his eye he could see people's legs, smell their drunken excitement, hear the slow, steady pounding of their hearts. Drinking from Kathryn in plain view on this sofa would be the utmost in danger and stupidity, which of course made it very nearly impossible to resist. As he gently scraped his teeth over the sweet-smelling curve of her throat, JC sighed; as he slowly sank them into her skin, he very nearly moaned. Kathryn stiffened in shock as JC drank, but she didn't draw back; by now, she was in thrall to him. He fed for just a little bit, not even a full minute, then reluctantly drew back and arranged her hair so it concealed her neck again.

"Let's dance," JC suggested, and Kathryn nodded dumbly.

As they moved together on the dance floor, Kathryn mumbled, "You know, I don't even know your --"

"JC," he said, and let one of his hands move slowly up the curve of her back, fingers bumping over vertebrae. Her dress was backless, and her skin was soft and smooth.

"You know, I like you a lot, JC, but maybe I should -- I think my friends --" Kathryn began, and JC looked at her in admiration. She was strong -- most people could hardly even speak once he'd gotten them to this point.

"Shh," he answered, smiling at her, and then looked into her eyes until they went a little glassy again and she relaxed. Now all he had to do was keep her feeling good and slowly move her to someplace relatively hidden. JC lifted his head and scanned the club for Lance. He was nowhere in sight.

JC had just lowered his head to suggest to Kathryn that they get some fresh air when he first felt it, a cautious but decidedly strong touch at the edges of his mind. Immediately, his head snapped up; then, he narrowed eyes and tamped down hard on his thoughts. This . . . exploration or whatever wasn't coming from another vampire, so who dared? No sane mortal would try to enter the mind of a vampire, at least not one who valued his life. Annoyed beyond belief at the audacity of the intrusion, JC swept his eyes hungrily, systematically, around the room.

When he finally found him, JC smiled almost in spite of himself, because he was lovely -- very young and very stupid and absolutely delectable, with dark blue eyes, messy, short curls, and a distinctly unsettled look on his face. He wasn't looking away, though -- he stood at the end of the bar steps and stared back at JC with a confidence he had no right in this world to feel. It was almost as if he were --

JC very nearly laughed then, because the idea of this guy daring to look at him like he had half a chance in the world was so outrageous it was amusing. For several seconds, JC checked him out right back, looked him up and down until his chest rose and fell rapidly and his face and neck flushed red. Once he caught him and took him home, JC was going to -- well, first he'd examine him thoroughly inside and out, root around in his mind and have a little fun. Then, he'd strip him naked and bring him close, tease him, make him tremble for a while. It would be such a pleasure to watch as he slowly realized the gravity of the situation he was in. And not until then -- not until he knew exactly who JC was and exactly what he was doing -- would JC begin to feed from him, and he'd do it so carefully, so thoroughly; he'd take infinite pleasure in each slow struggle, each gasped protest. It would take hours, just hours, and . . .

No, wait. JC looked once more at the young man’s shoulders, at the sweet curve of his mouth, and then let his eyes travel downward. Maybe he'd fuck him first.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin couldn't breathe. He'd come to this club hoping for a release of sorts, but he hadn't envisioned anything like this, himself panting like a teenager and staring raptly into the eyes of a man with a woman in his arms. There was something so unnerving about the gaze; it felt so knowing and hungry and intense. Surely he couldn't have figured out that Justin had been trying to read his mind? The chances of that were pretty slim, and yet it was so strange. When he'd first reached out, Justin had sensed a whole host of emotions in the guy, an unsettling whirl of hunger, sensuality, and excitement Justin hadn't been quite able to get a grip on. But then everything had gone blank, almost as if the guy had suddenly put up a wall.

And now it was almost like he had Justin under some sort of spell, because while Justin knew in his head that he should probably look away, he absolutely couldn't bring himself to do it, not even when he felt himself start to tremble and grow hard, not even when he saw unmistakable amusement and pleasure in the guy's face. It was utterly embarrassing, but there was nothing he could do but stare helplessly into the eyes holding him in place and let his body betray him.

No, the evening definitely wasn't supposed to have gone like this. Justin had wanted a simple release from the strictures and formality of the Order, from the Tahitian prophets, from Chris, even. Everywhere he looked, it seemed, there were people watching him, judging his performance and finding him lacking. It was frustrating as hell being the youngest person there, and while Justin was quite conscious of the honor bestowed upon him, he was quickly starting to hate the looks of condescension and worry everyone kept giving him. They seemed to think he was a loose cannon, which was just ridiculous. If they'd just let him get out there on a real project, let him go out in the field, they'd be more than grateful for it; of this, Justin was completely, serenely confident. His talents were wasted in straight research -- he wanted to be contributing in a meaningful fashion.

Tonight he'd sought a place as unlike the motherhouse as he could find, and this garish club, with its focus on bright colors and beautiful people, had seemed ideal. Justin had taken a seat at a table near the edge of the bar, gotten a beer, and had settled down to people-watch. It was strange -- only a year or so ago, he would have been out there dancing and talking to people, but now his first impulse was to watch. The Order had definitely influenced him.

It was after he'd downed the second of his drinks that he first saw him, lean and elegant and dangerous-looking in his black shirt and pants. Justin had been fascinated by everything about him: the way he moved, the line of his cheekbone, the curve of his lower lip, the angle of his jaw as he leaned his head back and laughed. Justin was pretty sure he'd never met this guy -- very rarely had Justin ever encountered such beauty -- and yet there had also been something oddly familiar about him, something Justin couldn't quite place. Since he was fond of a puzzle, Justin had focused on him, and had watched in mingled admiration and jealousy as he'd moved in on this girl, had gone in rapid succession from eye contact to introductions to making out on the couch in full view of everyone in the club. And oh, he was confident: his hands were everywhere on her, and he'd bent his head so gracefully and unhurriedly to her neck, his every movement beautiful and languid. Justin had shivered as he'd watched the guy unhurriedly run his fingers up and down the woman's back, tracing complicated, invisible patterns into her naked skin. He'd never seen someone so sensual and so sure of himself.

Although he knew full well that it was a violation of the rules of the Order to frivolously invade people’s privacy, it didn't feel frivolous to want to get closer to this man. It had seemed more like an imperative, and so Justin had pushed his ethics aside and delicately gone in. But then the guy had found his eyes and everything had gone mad.

Justin would have stared forever if he could have, but as he watched, the guy slowly lifted his head and then looked off to the hallway beside the bar, almost as if he were listening to something no one else could hear. Then he looked with regret at the woman in his arms, bent down to whisper something in her ear, and stepped away from her and started to head for the front of the club.

Before he really knew he was doing it Justin was plunging forward, trying desperately to get through the packed room so he could see him before he left, set eyes on him one more time. He was fast and impolite and he earned more than a few hostile stares on his way, but it wasn't good enough -- he was still at least ten feet from the door when the guy reached it. To make matters worse, the guy had apparently come with someone else, another man who was every bit as handsome and strange as he was.

"Oh," Justin had said softly to himself in disappointment, watching as the two men laughed and murmured to each other. He wasn't ever going to see this guy again, and all he wanted -- all he needed -- was one last look into his eyes, one final glance. He struggled forward one more time and in his haste somehow got tangled up with a waitress, one who was carrying a tray full of drinks. In the ensuing cacophony of breaking glass and shrieking Justin had kept his eyes trained on the front of the club, watched in strange excitement as the man had quickly turned around to see who or what was responsible for the commotion. His eyes swept quickly over the scene and his mouth had curled in amusement as he'd noticed Justin on the ground and covered in beer. To make it worse, just then, the waitress had started yelling at Justin. She had been so furious that Justin's concentration had suffered, but unless he was going crazy, and he was pretty sure he wasn't, he'd made eye contact with the guy again, who had smiled once, lazily and teasingly, and then said, "Bye, Justin" inside his head.

~ ~ ~ ~

The whisper was sibilant and low, sliding icily down his spine like a cool finger. Justin . . .

He shuddered and felt the sweat break out on his brow as he turned, searching for the source of the whisper, for the man belonging to voice. Anonymous bodies jostled and lights swirled around him, causing his vision to prism. Streaks of darkness and light made his eyes burn and his head pound, funneling into a deep rhythm that throbbed low in his stomach, making him gasp. The voice came again, whispering his name and beckoning him forward, rich with a dark and knowing amusement. Justin moaned, desperation rising and threatening to overwhelm him as he twisted again, and now the whisper was right in front of him, so close, echoing his pounding heart. But the lights faded to black and the music became deafening, and through the thick darkness he reached out to touch the man that he knew was right there. Close enough to feel, to taste, but there was nobody there.

Without warning strong hands were sliding fingertips down the side of his face, so cold that Justin shivered despite the heat, the sweat beading on his temples and sliding slowly down his neck. Just as suddenly the fingers were gone, leaving Justin cold and shaking. He drifted to where he thought the body was, and felt nothing. His body hummed in awareness and frustration, and his helpless groan tangled hard in his throat.

Out of the darkness the whisper came again, close to his left ear this time, and his entire body shuddered into goose bumps. Abruptly the cold was replaced with scorching heat, a deliciously firm body pressing hard against Justin’s back, bold hands curving possessively around his hips as the music pounded. His breath shortened and gasped for air, all senses straining toward the body behind him. There was a low, sweet laugh, no more than a breath against his ear, and the hands curved inward, crossing low over Justin’s groin and pulling him backwards. Justin moaned helplessly as he was teased, stroked in the pulsing darkness, his hands clenched into fists as his hips rocked forward into a firm and knowing hand and back against blistering heat. He strained against the hands holding him, begging for more, harder, faster, and as his world began to splinter into white he felt the warm wet lips and sharp teeth against his neck and heard the whisper again, Justin . . .

He came awake with a sickening shock, gasping as cold air swirled around him and cooled the sweat coating his body. He was standing on the balcony of his room in the Order’s house, the long French doors wide open to the bedroom behind him. He stared around him blankly, heaving for breath. He’d gone to bed in sweats and a t-shirt, mindful of the cold English nights, but now he was stark naked. He shook his head, disoriented. What was he doing naked on his balcony in the middle of the night?

He’d been dreaming, he realized slowly, backing quickly into his room and closing the balcony doors securely. He lunged for his sleep clothes, finding them balled up on the floor by his bed, his teeth chattering with cold and tension. He’d been dreaming, and he’d walked in his sleep. That hadn’t happened to him since he’d been a child.

And fuck, he was freezing. Justin shivered violently, the painful erection from his vivid dream fading quickly as he dove under the covers of his bed. He lay still, shaking, waiting to be warm.

The dream had been -- well, powerful. And obviously triggered by his glimpse of that man he’d seen at the club this evening. The man with the deep eyes, the sharp cheekbones, the sly and knowing smile. The man who had . . .

Abruptly Justin jumped out of bed, grabbing his slippers and pulling a heavy sweatshirt on as he paced his cold room. The strangely familiar man in the club, the one who’d looked at Justin like he knew what he was thinking, the one who had spoken Justin’s name at the door as he’d exited, leaving Justin to struggle against the broken glasses and the crowd. It had been just a glimpse, really, the electric blue eyes, the sly smile, the voice.

Justin had been watching the man dance, he remembered. He’d been struck by the man’s grace, the sinuous way he moved with his partner, the sharp slant of his cheekbone, the fall of his dark hair. Attractive, certainly, but there was something familiar about him, and once he had seen him, Justin had not been able to stop staring. He’d wanted the man to smile, he’d realized dimly. He wanted him to look up, to see Justin watching him and meet his eyes, and to smile.

And he had, Justin knew, the man had smiled and it had been both approving and taunting, and he’d . . . spoken? But Justin had been too far away to hear, he knew this with a shudder that had nothing to do with the cold, a cautious thrill of excitement. The club had been packed and very loud, the music pounding at the decibel level of a small jet. The man had looked at him, and smiled, and spoken, but his lips had not moved. Justin had heard the voice in his head.

And the man had known Justin’s name.

Justin sat down abruptly in the easy chair in his bedroom, acknowledging that he wouldn’t be sleeping again any time soon and flickering on the gas fire in the fireplace with a small, absent gesture. Warmth began to steal into the room, but Justin continued to shake.

Another psychic? He wasn’t anyone Justin knew from the Order, and Justin was never in public without his own defenses up. And his defenses were good. Better than good -- even Chris had admiringly commented that nobody in the Order had barriers like Justin’s. Nobody read him without Justin allowing it. But this man had looked at him, plucked his name right out of Justin’s head, and called him by it.

Agitated, Justin rose from his chair and began to pace, his eyes unfocused as he moved back and forth in front of the fireplace. The flames spun eerie shapes against the paneled walls and high ceiling, casting his shadow as a ghostly image. He felt suddenly uneasy, exposed, and even though his rooms were high on the second floor of the Order’s house, he went to the windows and pulled the heavy draperies shut.

But that was somehow worse, the room feeling closed and stifled, and after banking the fire he headed through his sitting room and out into the silent hallway, pacing swiftly past other members’ quiet rooms. It was so late, past four o’clock. He hadn’t been asleep for very long before the dream . . .

He laughed a little, rubbing his face in embarrassment. Yes, quite an intense dream. Painfully intense, and his body was still thrumming with the after effects even though it seemed less vivid already, fading at the edges like an old piece of parchment. Perhaps it was his body’s way of telling him something, he thought with wry amusement. Like, it’s been too long since you got laid.

He continued to stride through the corridors, his feet silent on the thick carpeting, meeting no one. He was tired, he realized, although he hadn’t done much dancing. It was always exhausting being in crowds, having to block his own thoughts as well as filtering out the mental jangle of everyone around him, the press of people, the mob. He was adept at it after all these years, but he understood why it was difficult to get other members of the Order to go out clubbing with him. None of them were fond of crowds.

Justin turned toward the huge common rooms, calming as he moved, the faux gas lights on the walls warm and soothing. It was part of being one of the youngest members of the Order, he reminded himself. Not too many people interested in going out to play, to dance, to drink, to . . .

. . . hunt . . .

pick up a stranger and spend a few minutes in the dark alley behind the club, or to be taken home, the thrill of sex with a beautiful stranger in an unfamiliar bed . . .

Justin came to a complete stop, blinking in confusion. He’d traveled far from his room in the north wing. Now he was in the corner of the library, and had already taken four steps down the spiral staircase leading to the restricted archives. The lights were low, the fires out, and the library was completely silent. Nobody awake at this hour, although he could sense activity far away in the east wing as the kitchen staff began preparations for the day. From the rest of the Order there was peaceful sleep and utter quiet.

A thought flickered slyly across his mind: no one would know if he went down to the restricted archives. It was much less risky than the last time he’d been there all those weeks ago, the time he’d felt the strange compulsion to see . . . something? His mind skittered away from the details and when he came back to himself he’d descended to the very bottom level of the restricted archives without even realizing it. His hand was already flipping on the light switch, illuminating that long, familiar corridor.

He hesitated, realizing for a painfully clear moment that he was breaking this rule again, that only blind luck had kept him from getting caught the previous time, and that such luck could not be counted on. He needed to go back to bed, he needed to stop doing foolish things. He had so much work to do: research on the Tahitian prophets and two other projects Chris had mentioned he’d want him to get started on. He was falling behind and that was no way to prove his worth to the Order, to get permission to view the restricted archives, to show that he was just that good, just that powerful, despite his youth and inexperience.

But now that he was already here . . . Justin drifted a little, weaving with exhaustion, and he was startled to realize that he’d traveled all the way down the corridor, that he was in already in front of the same door he’d been considering going to. His hand was already on the door knob, turning it. It wouldn’t hurt just to look inside, just for a moment.

As before, the knob turned smoothly beneath his hand and the door swung open easily, almost welcoming Justin inside. This time he reached for the switch and a bright light flooded the contents of the little room with harsh white light. Justin squinted, his eyes protesting, and thus his first real look at the portrait on the wall was through a haze of tears. He blinked them away, and for a long moment he just stared.

The quality of the painting was not particularly good, and it was bleached with age although the colors had probably once been vivid. Justin’s eyes traced the curve of the jaw, the slanted cheekbones, the wide blue-gray eyes. It was the same man. The same man he’d seen in the club tonight, the man who’d moved with such an exquisite and menacing grace. The man who’d locked eyes with Justin and smiled slowly.

It wasn’t like the smile in this portrait though. The painted smile had an open sort of sweetness -- it spoke of joy, of pleasure, of anticipation, and now that Justin could tear his eyes away from the expression he could see the man sitting casually in the chair, dressed in period clothing. Justin’s mind spun with confusion. It was the same man, he was certain of it, but how long ago had this painting been done? And what was it doing in the Order’s restricted archives?

He tore his gaze away with an effort that caused him physical pain, spinning around to take in the rest of the room. A tall, free-standing armoire stood against the far wall, its wood heavy and dark, the mirror on the door old and stained and cracked in one corner. Justin moved to it, placing his palms lightly on the door handle and closing his eyes, concentrating as he reached out. He felt nothing. He pulled the door open, seeing the old clothing inside. Luxurious fabrics but dusty, ancient, falling apart at Justin’s light touch. Why were they here? What were they for?

Breathing quickly, he moved to the other object, the small modern filing cabinet made out of metal. The tag at the front of the large drawer was labeled "Joshua Scott Chasez," and he whispered the name under his breath as he pulled the drawer open.

There were a series of thick files in the drawer, case study files of the sort he was accustomed to dealing with, the same manila research files the Order had used for years. His heart thudding in his ears, he crouched in front of the drawer and removed the closest, most recent file. Slowly, hands shaking, he opened it.

On the left was a fuzzy mimeographed copy of what looked like a fairly recent photograph, a picture of the man Justin had seen earlier that evening in the club. Justin’s eyes traced the dark curling hair, lean body hugged by jeans and a black turtleneck, hands thrust in the pocket of a long, black wool coat. He seemed to be crossing a street at night. The photographer had left the shutter open for too long and there was a blur of movement and light in the background. London, near Hyde Park perhaps, Justin thought. Justin’s eyes lingered on the profile, the straight nose, the long slender neck. The skin seemed to glow, he thought disjointedly. Even in the inferior photocopy he was beautiful.

Justin frowned as he leafed through the file to the most recent group of reports, his brow knotting in confusion when he saw it was dated over five years ago. The entry was from a senior investigator named Roberta Thomas, someone Justin didn’t know. Her writing was loopy, hurried, almost illegible, and Justin scowled again. These files looked like photocopies; there were even smudges on the pages as if they’d been done in haste. Why hadn’t these been transcribed into electronic data? Justin had spent his first few months with Order transcribing files but he was quite certain he’d never seen these. He scanned the entry hurriedly, feeling a strange sense of urgency.

. . . sightings almost nightly now. I find that I can easily tell when he is near, something in the air changes when he is close. He leaves me clues, hinting at where I can find him, and I feel strongly that he wants to be known, he knows of the Order’s interest and wants to be cooperative.

Another entry, three pages and three weeks later:

. . . dream of him every night, vivid fever dreams that make me hope that he is trying to communicate with me, that he is as focused on me as I am on him. The elders will not allow me to conduct my research at night in the city now; they speak of danger, of his talents for mesmerizing and mind control and I try not to laugh at them, for none of them knows this subject as well as I . . .

Justin glanced back at the picture, goose bumps prickling his skin underneath his thick sweatshirt. He was suddenly aware of how deeply within the earth he was, the massive building looming heavily above his head. His heartbeat thudded in his ears and suddenly he flipped the file closed and read the label on the front cover.

"Joshua Scott Chasez," he whispered aloud. "1776 - 1804. Vampire."

Vampire, he thought dizzily. Vampire. He rubbed the short curls on his head vigorously, breathing deeply. Vampire.

He opened the file up again, flipping to the final entry on the last page. He was breathing rapidly, his heart pounding and his vision jumping across the entries.

. . . conversations grow more intimate, although he will not tell me where he lives . . . certain that it is somewhere in the warehouse district south of Gracechurch, it seems a perfect place and twice now I have seen him near there, early in the evening . . .

. . . uneasy about his intense interest in the Order’s file, but then he seems not to care so much . . . surely there can be no harm in showing it to him; isn’t that what the Order’s policy has always been? I don’t know why I hesitate -- he has shown me so much already, so much I can add to the Order’s store of knowledge . . .

And then finally:

I know he is out there now, waiting for me, calling me. My superiors have forbidden me to leave the house but they are shortsighted and I refuse to feel guilt about disobeying. They will understand when I return with the knowledge I am gathering, the information JC is offering. It is a chance in a lifetime, to see the world as he sees it, to walk the night at his side and have him reveal everything he is to me. I hear his voice now, constantly in my head, his rich, beautiful voice. He whispers to me, he calls my name, and I am helpless . . .

This was the last entry, and there followed a brief note that the researcher had been left for dead at the Order’s front gates the following morning, her throat mangled, mutilated. There were pictures.

Her original file was gone, along with all earlier files on this subject. What Justin held in his hands, he read, were documents rescued from the archives and copies made clandestinely, without the researcher’s knowledge. The senior members at that time had feared her loyalties had become divided.

The file on this subject had been closed, Justin read, the decision made to change the status of the Joshua Scott Chasez file from level two caution to level four restriction upon the murder of Roberta Thomas. Justin heaved a deep breath, his head pounding, and let the pages slip through his fingers, preparing the read the entire file from the beginning.

"What the hell are you doing down here?!"

Justin started violently, shocked not only to hear a voice but to realize that he had not sensed anybody coming. His surprise was complete and the file fell to the ground as he leapt up, gasping. He gripped his chest, feeling his heart flutter like that of a small trapped animal as he stared at Chris.

Chris had been asleep, apparently, his hair sticking up in all directions, his face still creased from his sheets. His eyes snapped fire, and his face was like a dark thundercloud as he glowered at Justin in surprise and anger. "Justin," he said again. "These are restricted archives! What the hell are you doing?!"

For a moment Justin didn’t know what to say. The memories of the past few days flooded him, the book, the first guilty visit to the archives, the club, the man (Chasez his mind whispered, savoring the taste of the word), the dream, the portrait . . .

"Chris," he started, and stopped, glancing again at the portrait. He stared again, battling the overwhelming and completely unacceptable urge to ask if he could take it with him and hang it in his second floor room. He was barely aware of Chris grabbing him by the arm, replacing the file in the cabinet and closing the drawer, bundling Justin out of the small room and switching off the light. Justin gasped when the door slammed shut, the portrait hidden from his vision. He blinked stupidly at Chris, and Chris shook his arm.

"Justin," he said, and now he sounded less angry and more worried. "Justin, man, you gotta talk to me. You have to tell me what you’re doing down here. Right now." His eyes burned into Justin’s, and he could feel Chris’s agitation, his concern, beating at Justin’s mind like the wings of a bird. His fingers dug into Justin’s arm and shook him again. "C’mon, Justin. Spill it."

Justin took a deep breath, forcing his mind out of the slow, dark molasses it seemed to be mired in. "I don’t know, really," he started slowly. "Chris, I don’t know. It’s . . . weird."

"Weird," Chris repeated evenly, and in the year he’d been Justin’s mentor Justin had never heard him use this dark, serious tone. "Justin, you could be dismissed from the Order for this, sent away in disgrace, and all you can say is that it’s weird?"

Justin struggled to explain himself, taking another deep breath. His mouth was bone dry and a headache throbbed dully at his temples. Start at the beginning, he told himself. Start talking. Do it.

"Okay, there was this book," he began. "Last month, when I was doing the Tahitian prophet research, and outlining my report . . ." And he told Chris everything he could remember, leaving out only the violently erotic nature of his dream.

When Justin finished he was breathing shallowly and rubbing his eyes. The headache was worse, making the corridor lights flare painfully. Exhaustion curled around him, dragging him toward the floor. He focused on Chris’s face with an effort, feeling himself shiver as he saw how pale Chris was, the sweat blooming at his temples despite the chill in the deep archives. "Chris," he started again, shocked at the pained whisper of his own voice. "I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know . . ."

Chris pulled Justin to him, awkwardly patting him on the back as he took a deep, shuddering breath. "All right," he said slowly, "Okay, take it easy." He turned to face Justin, putting his hands on his shoulders, looking into his eyes.

"Look. Justin. This Chasez vampire, he’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous. He’s killed several members of the Order, people with a lot more experience than you. His files are restricted for a reason, Justin, and that reason is your own safety." He watched Justin closely, his eyes dark and serious. "Do you understand?"

"Yeah, but Chris." Justin felt the beginnings of a rare excitement sparking through his exhaustion, the exhilaration he felt whenever he discovered the first crucial pieces to a new and fascinating puzzle. "Chris, I was drawn to this stuff, the book, the archive vault, I mean, that was not me making decisions. Something pulled me here. And then earlier tonight, I saw him." He paused, breathing quickly, eyes intent on Chris’s face. "I mean, don’t you think that means something? Don’t you?"

Chris’s eyes were steady, his expression forbidding. "Yeah, Justin, I think it could mean a few things. Like maybe you’re too inquisitive for your own good. Or that you depend on your barriers to protect you instead of your own common sense. Or that you’re not skilled enough at hiding who you are to be let out alone in London just yet." He paused, his voice like ice in the silent corridor. "Or, that maybe your ambition is outstripping your experience level."

"But Chris," Justin started again, and he froze when Chris yanked at his arm, realizing that he’d been reaching for the doorknob again. "That portrait . . ." he broke off, helplessly, unable to communicate his need, the way the man in the portrait had gripped him.

Chris watched him steadily, his mouth pressed into a firm, straight line. "I don’t know much about that painting, Justin. I think someone told me that it was acquired by the Order ages ago. It was painted by someone who knew the Chasez vampire before he became . . . well, you know. But I don’t know anything else about it. And I’m telling you right now: you don’t need to know anything about it either."

Justin started to protest, and Chris cut him off. "No. Listen to me. It doesn’t matter that you saw the Chasez vampire, it doesn’t matter that you are interested in his file, that you think you have an opportunity for fieldwork. What matters here is that you’ve broken some very important rules, rules that don’t exist just to make your life challenging, but to protect you. You are years away from having the experience necessary to take on a project like this. Years."

Chris took a deep breath and rubbed his forehead, wearily. "Look. I don’t want to have to report you. You’re my novice, and when you break rules it reflects badly on me too. But Justin, you have to promise me that you won’t come down here again. You have to promise me that you will not pursue the Chasez vampire. Believe me when I tell you that your very life depends on this." Chris waited, watching Justin closely. "Promise me."

Justin struggled with his arguments, his mind swirling with the portrait, the man in the club, the fascination with the idea that he was real. He was real and he’d shown himself to Justin, called him by his name. Chris shook his arm again, hard.

"Justin. Your word. Right now, or we go to the senior members."

Justin clenched his fists, head pounding, swaying on his feet. The words came out choked, dragged reluctantly through his throat. "Okay. Okay, you have my word."

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin had never been able to resist a puzzle or a challenge, and the unusual pull exerted by the portrait of the vampire was something completely outside of Justin’s experience. The sight of the vampire himself (and his mind still whispered Joshua Scott Chasez in a tone of wonder whenever he thought about that night at the club) had fascinated and exhilarated him. He was on slow burn, consumed by the tantalizing thought of knowledge dangling just out of his reach, unable to think about anything else.

It was driving him crazy, but he’d given Chris his word, and for the next few days Justin worked very hard at not thinking about that which interested him most. He resisted going to the library to read up on the known lore of vampires or haunted portraits, and refused to think about the storage room deep in the restricted archives. He applied himself with determined concentration to his report on the Tahitian prophets and the other study projects that he was beginning to fall behind on.

But Justin had trouble concentrating, and more and more often caught himself drifting. Twice since the confrontation with Chris Justin had roused suddenly from formless daydreams to find that a great deal of time had been lost while he sat in the library, staring blankly at dusty tomes on subjects that did not catch his interest, his pens idle and his notebooks empty. Once he had startled himself awake in his own sitting room, where he’d started out reading peacefully by the fire and ended up staring blindly out into the black night, dreamily tracing the moon as it traveled across his window. It was the sound of his own voice speaking the name of the vampire he’d glimpsed that had jerked him back to the present with a nauseating sort of shock. The flat tone of his own voice had been unfamiliar to his ears, strange and foreign and more than a little exciting. On some level he knew his concentration issues and the amount of time he was losing were unusual, unnatural, and that he needed to mention them to Chris. But he kept putting it off.

There had been tension between Justin and Chris after Chris caught him in the restricted archives, and although Justin believed that Chris had not betrayed him, Justin had the feeling that he was being watched. Not suspiciously, suspicion was not part of what the Order was, but watched closely, and with concern. Justin felt badly for making the people he cared about worry, people who’d been so good to him, but more and more he couldn’t help but think that they didn’t know as much as he knew about this situation. No one had seen the vampire except for Justin. No one else in the Order, a huge house filled with sensitives of all varieties, had been so powerfully drawn to the hidden portrait. It seemed painfully obvious to Justin that there was more going on here than the conservative Order would acknowledge, and he couldn’t believe that they would care more about the breaking of a few rules than about the larger issue. The head of the London house and all the senior members were at a meeting in Amsterdam, and in the back of his head Justin wondered if he should approach them directly when they returned.

In the meantime he had work to do and restricted archives to avoid, and he felt badly about disappointing Chris. Chris was more than his mentor; he was a good friend, and it hurt to know that Chris was disappointed in him, that his trust in Justin was compromised. He was relieved when Chris invited him to accompany him into London one clear and cold Saturday evening. It felt like the beginning of a mending to their friendship.

But in reality it appeared to be more of the surveillance that Justin had been aware of since his last unauthorized trip to the restricted archives. Chris drove carefully through the heavy London traffic, but Justin caught him frowning more than once, his eyes dark and worried as he watched Justin examine the pedestrians walking the brightly lit streets. Chris initiated careful dinner conversation about neutral topics – Chris’s upcoming field work in India, the last NBA game they’d caught on the satellite, the possibility of Justin teaching the new novices something of his uncanny skill with mental barriers. Justin doubled his efforts to participate cheerfully, to show Chris that he really was fine. By the time dinner was over Justin was tired and more than a little stressed, but he could tell from Chris’s demeanor that he was somewhat reassured about Justin’s state of mind. It was a good feeling, and Justin was glad he’d resisted the strong impulse to suggest they visit the club where he had last seen the vampire. Or at least take a walk through that neighborhood.

Chris wanted to stop at the large bookseller across the square before heading back to the Order, mumbling something about a gift for his sister’s birthday, and Justin agreed. He was grateful for the opportunity to find something new to read. Sleep had been very hard to come by in the last couple of days, and new material that didn’t have to do with the Tahitian prophets would be welcome.

The Bindings and Castoffs Bookstore was a huge, cavernous building boasting multiple levels, knowledgeable clerks, its own coffee shop, and a selection second to none in the whole of downtown. It was also, Justin thought, cold, drafty, poorly lit, and full of strange people with nothing better to do on a Saturday night than drink coffee and try to look intellectual. Not one of these nerds could get a date tonight, he thought scornfully, and then had to laugh at himself. He didn’t have a date either, now did he?

He and Chris parted ways at the top of the staircase on the second level, Chris heading for the Young Readers section and Justin moving to the section the map had indicated held historical biographies. The curving path led him on a meandering journey through tall, dark bookcases that seemed to absorb the illumination from the weak fluorescent lights high above. Justin found what he thought was the correct section and moved down one of the narrow aisles. There were small, decorative lamps at the end of the row, but their light didn’t reach the center of the aisle and Justin strained to read the titles. He thrust his hands into his pockets – suddenly it seemed very, very cold.

He was about to give up and head back to the better-illuminated concourse when he turned a corner and narrowly missed bumping into another person, standing silently and perfectly still in the shadow of the tall bookcase. Justin opened his mouth to apologize, and froze.

It was him (Chasez, his mind whispered frantically), standing utterly still and silent as if he’d been waiting for Justin. His back was to the window, throwing his face into shadow, but Justin could see the glimmer of his eyes, the smooth and pale skin of his face, the curve of his elegant jaw above the ribbed black turtleneck he wore. The eyes creased a little as he slowly, slowly, smiled and Justin felt his mouth go dry, his heart stop for a painful, breathless moment before plunging into a hard rhythm, flooding his body with adrenaline. He scrambled to pull his mental defenses up, every lesson he’d been taught about protecting himself from dangerous creatures skimming disjointedly through his mind. But he couldn’t keep his eyes from tracing the smooth curve of the vampire’s cheekbones, the softly curling hair, the generous and soft lips that showed just a hint of white teeth through the small, knowing smile. His body reacted violently, beginning to hum with energy as his breath shortened. And as Joshua Scott Chasez, Vampire, took one measured step toward him, Justin shuddered and stood his ground.

But was it only one step? Because now he was right there, right in front of Justin, close enough for Justin to see the crystalline depths of his blue-gray eyes, the length of his dark eyelashes, smell the faint scent of a very expensive cologne, feel his breath as he raised one elegant hand to hover next to Justin’s face.

"Justin," he murmured, his voice rich and deep and beautiful. "Now, you’re not going to scream, are you?"

It wasn’t a question, and as he trailed one long, cool finger across Justin’s lower lip, making him tremble and gasp for breath, it seemed to grow darker in the bookstore, and colder. The vampire’s smile was confident and mocking and utterly cruel. He brought the finger, moist from Justin’s own lip, to his own mouth and showed Justin a hint of unnaturally long teeth as he languidly touched his tongue to it, watching Justin intently. His eyes were fathomless, the gleam in them both chilling and inviting, and Justin trembled as the room started to spin around him. His heart thudded painfully in his ears and his pulse raced, but nothing mattered but this man in front of him, nothing mattered but Justin’s need to get closer to him, to stare into those deep eyes and have those elegant hands and gorgeous mouth all over him, now . . .

Chasez, his mind whispered in wonder and need and the beginnings of a slowly burning fear, and Justin watched, captivated, as the vampire’s smile grew and warmed.

"Justin, Justin," he mocked softly, tilting his head in a way that was almost teasing. His hands reached out slowly as if to cradle Justin’s face, and Justin was dying for it, swaying closer to those cold hands as if they’d save him. Goose bumps broke out on his body, and Justin stared in unblinking fascination as the pink tongue reappeared, wetting the full lower lip. "Seeing as you and I are going to be so . . . close," he whispered, almost crooning. "Why don’t you call me –"

"JC," and this time Justin said it out loud, jolted by his own low tone, the way his voice shook.

JC leaned back infinitesimally, the arrogant smile fading as his eyes narrowed on Justin’s face. Dimly Justin was aware of surprise, curiosity and suspicion prodding sharply at the edges of his mind, so much stronger and more focused than when Chris or the other members of the Order tested him. He tried to focus, but JC’s eyes pulled him slowly in and he swayed dizzily, wanting to get closer, needing to be closer.

His body knew he was in danger even if his mind refused to listen. Justin made a last-ditch effort to save himself, jerking his eyes away with a superhuman effort. He thought he was shouting, every word an agonizing effort as it clawed out of his throat but what emerged was a choked whisper. "I know what you are," he whispered finally, feeling the room stop spinning as the vampire straightened, suddenly alert. "I know your name," he hissed, terror and arousal making his voice shake. Justin threw out a hand and gripped the bookcase beside him, feeling his strength climb sluggishly back to his numb limbs as he dug his fingers painfully into the hard wood. Fascination, wariness and arousal warred within him, making his legs tremble and threaten to buckle as he looked up to meet the JC’s icy blue eyes and still face. "I know who you are, and I know where you live," he continued, shaking. "And I know that you’re helpless during the day."

JC didn’t move a muscle but to Justin he seemed suddenly taller, darker, infinitely more menacing than a moment ago. All warmth had fled from his face, leaving his features sharp and predatory as his lips curled in a savagely mocking sneer. "I don’t think you want to discuss helplessness with me right now, Justin," he snarled, and Justin heard him drawing deep, heaving breaths. "You trembling, arrogant, smart-mouthed fool," he hissed viciously. "You and your Order fucking dare . . ." and Justin realized with a shudder that he was reading him, despite Justin’s much-vaunted skill and best efforts JC was reading him, and what he was seeing was making him absolutely furious.

Justin reached desperately for his scattered faculties, his mind spinning with visions of this man at the club mouthing the long neck of a gorgeous young woman, of these same blue eyes smiling brilliantly at him from the depths of an ancient oil portrait, of the file with this man’s name and picture on it. The vampire frowned, his eyes intent on Justin’s face and again Justin felt that brutal prodding at the edges of his mind. He grit his teeth, steeling himself to resist when all he wanted right now was to move closer, to touch, to taste . . .

Then JC lifted his head swiftly, his eyes narrowing as they darted to the left, past Justin’s shaking form. His mouth tightened and he drew his coat around him as he took one long step back, moving quickly. He threw a single ferocious glance back into Justin’s face. "Justin," he said softly, menacingly, as if savoring the word. "I’ll see you later," he whispered, a tantalizing promise, a deadly threat. Justin trembled hard, and when he blinked JC was gone.

The room was suddenly warm again, stiflingly so, and Justin found himself on his knees in the dark and musty aisle with his entire body bathed in sweat. He was aware of Chris loping down the aisle toward him, throwing an arm around him, helping him up.

"Sick," he mumbled to Chris’s frantic inquiries. "Let’s go, please Chris, I don’t feel well."

"Did you see anyone up here?" Chris asked urgently, slinging one of Justin’s arms around his thick shoulders. "Did you see anyone?"

Justin closed his eyes, a stab of pain translating into a heavily pounding headache as he whispered, "No, no one." Chris was silent as they hurried down the central aisle toward the main staircase. Justin got his feet under him, pulling his arm from Chris’s shoulder as his vision cleared a little. "Did you?"

Chris’s face was grim, his eyes wide. "I saw a vampire down on the first level. I don’t know what he’s doing here, or if he’s alone." He threw another sharp look into Justin’s pale face, his arm gripping his elbow as they started down the staircase. "I thought . . ." He shook his head, his hand hard on Justin’s shaking elbow. "Never mind. Let’s get you out of here."

"Maybe they like to read too," Justin joked feebly, and Chris snorted.

"Maybe they do, but if they’re around, we have to get out of here. Right now." Chris’s eyes scanned the room sharply. "They don’t like members of the Order," he said quietly. "Or, rather, they like them a little too much."

Justin was still shaking, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from darting nervously around the room, probing into dark corners, searching for a tall, lean form. "My dinner," he said quietly as they moved down the stairs. "I must have eaten something bad."

"Actually, no. I put something in your pasta. It was my intention to poison you all along," Chris said sardonically, but his usual humor was flat and his face was grim as Justin stumbled and he reached out to steady him. A fine sheen of sweat covered his brow and he looked carefully around at the quiet bookstore as they reached the front door and stepped out into the deep London night.

The cold air hit the sweat on Justin’s forehead like an ice cube, helping his head to clear. He threw a panic-stricken look over his shoulder, certain he’d heard quiet footsteps pacing behind them, but there was nothing there. They reached the car and Justin waited an agonizingly long time for Chris to unlock it, diving into the passenger seat with a gasp of relief.

"Justin," Chris said, watching him closely as he jerked around to scan the empty back seat. "Justin, what’s wrong?"

"Nothing," Justin gasped, sliding down in the seat. "I just want to go home, Chris, please." He grabbed his seat belt, fastening it with hands that shook.

Chris threw a sharp look behind them before starting the car and pulling out into the road. He made a careful u turn, and Justin struggled to avert his eyes from the front of the book store and its deep shadows, covering his eyes with a trembling hand. He concentrated on breathing deeply and evenly as the car made the turn that would take them to the outskirts of London proper, where the motherhouse was. Justin leaned back, closing his eyes and clearing his mind with a painful effort. He could feel Chris’s concern, worry and anger and the cold certainty that Justin was lying to him, that Justin had seen something or someone in the dark aisles of the second floor, that Justin was keeping something important from him.

"Chris," he whispered, opening his eyes and rolling his head on the seat to look at him. "Please, it’s nothing. I just don’t feel well. Okay?"

Chris gave him a long hard look that Justin met evenly, then he nodded, shortly. "Okay, Justin. Okay, let’s get you home. We’re almost there."

Justin leaned back with a sigh. London’s dark and dangerous corners loomed heavily behind him, making him shiver, and he resisted the urge to ask Chris to hurry.

~ ~ ~ ~

Rage propelled him. It burned in his throat, radiated through his arms and legs, and then settled low in his stomach, and that felt so awful it made him even angrier. JC walked as quickly as he could down the street, his footsteps loud on the sidewalk, glaring balefully at the few people who dared cross his path. They widened eyes and then skittered away nervously.

So yet again the Order was after him, and this time they'd sent an even younger child -- a very, very pretty one, because they were smart and they knew what JC liked, -- but also someone a little stronger than usual, someone who could protect his thoughts in a way most humans couldn't. He was also well-informed, and had clearly had access to JC's file -- a file that was not supposed to exist. JC took in a long, deep breath and held it, let his fury grow exponentially. He had been so sure that Bobbie had destroyed everything -- in fact, that had been the whole point of his flirtation with her. JC thought back to her adoring gaze, her trembling hands, the eager, almost wheedling tone of voice she'd used with him. It was disgustingly easy to manipulate members of the Order: they were so earnest, so naive, and so essentially unskilled, though their pride prevented them from seeing it. Bobbie had been so pleased with herself at penetrating JC's mind a few times -- thoughts he had decided to show her, though she of course hadn't realized it -- that she'd been easily convinced that she had special insight into him. What she'd failed to realize was that the series of increasingly open encounters she'd had with JC were not owing to her own investigative acumen but rather to JC's careful planning. He'd played her beautifully; he'd been so sure of it: he'd drawn her in so slowly, revealed "secrets" so reluctantly, given her more information than she'd ever dreamed of to write up for the snooping, contemptible Order. Her job had been to bulk up the file on him: his job had been to draw her in, turn her against the Order and get her to destroy the file, after which point, of course, he'd destroy her. So he'd teased her, he'd seduced her, he'd made her trust him and then tricked her into believing that she loved him -- all of which had made the act of finally killing her even more exquisite.

It was a memory JC had often relived, and even now in the midst of his fury, he was drawn to it again. Really, it had been one of the very best kills of his life, so beautiful in the gray light of early dawn, she helpless and spread-eagled in front of the motherhouse itself, he feeding slowly, knowing that with each passing second the sky grew brighter and the likelihood of someone coming upon them was greater. She'd known that, too, and it had given her desperate, ridiculous hope, which had in return given JC pleasure so stabbing and so dark he'd barely been able to control himself. He remembered how she'd begged him for her life, her voice low and broken, struggled feebly to call out, to attract attention. It was then that JC had asked her about the file, told her that the pain and the fear would stop at once if she told him the truth about it, that he would step away and let her live if she told him what he wanted to know. Though she hadn't known it, she'd been too far gone to live then, and so she had sobbed and pleaded and assured him again and again that it was gone, that she’d destroyed it all and everything she'd learned about him would remain secret forever. "Thank you," JC had whispered, and then kissed her one last time before killing her.

It had been so good that he'd staggered when he slowly rose from the body, and for a moment he'd been afraid for himself, worried that in his present state he wouldn't be able to make it to shelter in time. Even that hadn't stopped him from carefully arranging her for the Order, however: he'd lifted her skirt a bit, unbuttoned her blouse, and showed them that he knew exactly what she was -- their whore. After that, he'd had no further trouble from the Order, and JC had relaxed, relieved and pleased with himself. It had been relatively easy and certainly most pleasurable to defeat them.

But now it seemed that maybe Bobbie had bested him, that she'd somehow had the possession of mind to lie to his face even as she lay dying before him, and that the Order, instead of stepping back, was going to be every bit as annoying and intrusive as they'd been before. It was infinitely distressing to know that he'd been tricked by her in the end, to think that all of his efforts had been in vain.

And Justin was even worse than Bobbie had been, with his confidence and his arrogance and his infuriatingly closed mind. JC had known at once that he was a member of the Order -- none of them could conceal that fact -- but Justin's resistance to him on other fronts had been a most unwelcome shock. It had been a very, very long time since JC had been unable to make a human do exactly what he wanted him to, and that unpleasant realization had been rendered even worse by Justin's taunt that he knew where JC lived.

At that thought, JC's anger arose again. He loved his house. He and Lance had been living there for decades, and it was perfect: secure and comfortable, with lots of rooms and corners for game-playing. Save for service personnel, every single human who'd known of it or had been in it had died, and there was no way JC could suffer having the entire Order know where he slept. Now he and Lance were going to have to move, and it was going to be a huge annoyance, difficult and unwieldy. It was the Order's fault. It was Justin's fault. JC clenched his fists. He should have killed him in the bookstore, he thought fiercely, should have pressed him silently into the shelves, tilted that pretty little neck, and then drunk to his heart's content. And when he was finished he would’ve gone to the motherhouse and thrown that body on their front steps as well.

That he hadn't done so was actually somewhat surprising. Had he lost his nerve? Not possible. Was he growing soft? Again, simply not possible. JC scowled and worked on the puzzle, bending over a bit and watching his feet as he walked quickly down the sidewalk. There was something so . . . confounding about Justin.

"JC," Lance said from a distance, and JC raised his head in surprise and waited until Lance caught up with him. Without really knowing it, he'd wandered into a residential neighborhood, and modest townhouses and brownstones lined the street beside him. JC frowned. It wasn't like him to lose himself in public like this, and as Lance approached, pink and glowing and with an expression of absolute self-satisfaction on his face, JC's already horrible mood grew even worse.

"So you ran out of the bookstore," Lance said, not even trying to conceal his glee. "You ran out on your own game without a single kill -- and what's more, you apparently ran away from a novice of the Order."

JC glared at him.

"I mean, of course he's pretty," Lance said, grinning. "Those shoulders, that mouth -- there's absolutely no denying that. But to be scared of him? What the hell, JC? Oh, and by the way, you lost. Two, JC. Two bodies in the reference section."

"You know, I'd love to be happy for you Lance, but right now I'm just a little more concerned with the fact that this child told me that the Order knows exactly where I live," JC said, and then grew even more livid when Lance laughed out loud.

"Oh, JC," Lance finally said, the condescension in his voice very nearly intolerable. "Oh, god. Don't tell me you actually think he was on official Order business."

That brought JC to a full stop. Pausing in front of a bus stop, he looked intently at Lance and waited.

"Think about it," Lance went on. "He interacted with you; he talked to you; he taunted you. That violates every single one of their principles, and you know it. He might well be researching you, but it's definitely not at the request of the Order. This one's acting on his own."

JC flashed back to the fear and excitement in Justin's blue eyes, to the soft velvet of his lower lip, to the breathless, excited tone under the threats he'd thrown at him in the bookstore.

"Oh my," he said softly, and a savage, clear pleasure spread through him. "I think you might actually be right about that."

"So, see, really there's no worry here," Lance went on.

"He knows where we live," JC said slowly and clearly, because Lance was being so utterly stupid. "He knows about the house, Lance."

To JC's annoyance, Lance remained unperturbed. "Are you sure about that? I mean, did he give you a location?"

"No," JC said slowly, and fought the urge to fidget.

"Okay, so did you find it in his mind?"

Embarrassment welled up in JC. Oh, but he was going to make Justin pay for this. "I actually -- well, his mind was a little -- I couldn't quite get it from him."

Lance laughed out loud. "You couldn’t read his thoughts? You?!"

"I could get the big things. I knew exactly what he was feeling, but I couldn't -- well. There's something about him, something that makes him able to resist me."

Lance laughed even harder. "Oh my god, that's beautiful. You're going to agonize over this for months -- I see it in your eyes. But as for the house --" Lance pulled himself together a bit, spoke more calmly, which was wise of him, because at this point JC was shaking with fury, on the verge of knocking him down. "He was probably bluffing, JC. If he really knew, he wouldn't have been able to conceal it, I don't care how resistant he is. You know how they are -- the thing they don't want you to know is always the easiest thing to get."

"Maybe," JC said thoughtfully. "But the fact of the matter is that it might be true, and if he knows, then so does the entire fucking Order, and I can't -- this is going to drive me insane, Lance. I have to get him, get that file, and figure it all out. I have to know what he knows."

"I don't think you should let it get to you, JC," Lance said slowly. "And besides: he may or may not know where we live, but you definitely know where he is," and then, as JC lifted burning eyes to him, quickly added, "No, JC. No. Not tonight. You're too upset by far, and --"

But already his voice was fading in JC's mind, fading as quickly as the hunger and anticipation of the hunt arose. He would, oh yes -- it was perfect. He would walk right though the Order's front doors and show Justin, show them all, what knowledge and power were really about.

" -- even listening to me?" Lance asked in exasperation.

"No," JC told him. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend to."

Lance stepped forward quickly and grabbed his arm. JC could have thrown it off, but given the look in Lance's eyes, that would have meant a fight. And if he fought Lance tonight, he'd be too weak to do what he really needed to do -- which was probably what Lance wanted anyway. JC wasn't about to be manipulated like that.

"All I'm saying is that you shouldn't do it at the motherhouse," Lance murmured. "He committed this sin alone, he should atone for it alone. And even if they do have our address -- aside from this single kid, they're obviously not doing anything about it. Their job is to watch, JC, never interfere, and I know that infuriates you, but it's not -- we shouldn't let that throw our lives in an uproar."

"He threatened me, Lance," JC said stiffly.

"Yes he did, and yes, he should pay for that. But look -- he can't stay in that house forever: eventually, he's going to have to come out again. And when he does, then you get him, you take him home, you have your fun with him, and then it's over. It's safe, it's clean and it's done with, and we have no wars with the Order, no messiness, no danger. Remember the last time you killed someone from the motherhouse? We had to eat in Paris for months after that."

"I have to tell you, Lance -- your fear of the Order is disturbing."

"And I have to tell you that your inability to think clearly about this whole thing is disturbing," Lance shot back. "There's absolutely no reason for you to do this right now, unless, of course . . ."

"Unless what?" JC asked in a dead, calm voice.

Lance rubbed the back of his neck. "Unless you can't stop yourself -- unless you've already let this child get under your skin."

JC laughed out loud. "Get to me? I want to kill him, Lance, not build him a shrine."

"Are you sure about that?" Lance carefully asked.

"Of course I am!"

"Okay. All right then -- how about this? I'll do it -- I'll go in there and kill him for you."

JC opened his mouth and then closed it, and then felt himself flush. He couldn’t stand the thought of Lance having Justin. JC didn't even want Lance to touch him.

"That's what I thought," Lance said softly.

JC quickly regrouped. "Look -- it doesn't mean that I'm obsessed -- it just means that I'm angry at him and that I want to get him back myself."

"You believe what you need to believe," Lance said dismissively, and then let go of JC's arm. "Okay, look. You know what I think about this, but I'm not going to press any further. You want to go out and do stupid things, that's your choice. You want to give an insignificant human power over you, that's your idea. Just don't come to me when it all goes wrong and you need help getting out of it."

"Believe me, I won't," JC said acidly, and then turned and hurried off.

~ ~ ~ ~

Typical boring Victorian architecture, JC thought as he pushed the body of the guard he'd just killed into the underbrush and then watched the lights in the motherhouse turn off one by one. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened to them breathe inside, listened to their hearts, their feet on the carpet, their stupid, small conversations. There were fewer of them in there than usual -- far fewer. JC smiled in the dark and waited.

Eventually, a van with "Capital Cleaning Service" lettered on the side pulled up. JC stepped into the shadows and watched as a lone woman got out; middle-aged and heavy, she looked tired and unhappy. Leave it to the Order to make their workers miserable. JC thought of his own pretty maid, thought of how sweet she looked bending over to dust, how long her legs were and how shiny her long, dark hair. One of these days he was going to have to reward her for all that good work.

As the cleaning lady slowly approached the service entrance, her arms laden with buckets and bottles of cleaning supplies, JC emerged slowly from his hiding place and smiled at her. Thanks to the guard, he looked pink and fresh and human, and he put on his sweetest, most harmless smile.

"You look like you could use some help," he said.

The woman looked suspiciously at him. The Order was rather good at training employees to think about security.

"Seriously," JC said, looking deep into her eyes. "It's late and you look tired. Let me take some of that."

After a moment, the woman sighed and gestured to a bucket and a mop still inside the van. "I suppose you could carry those if you wanted," she said, and then reached into her pocket and pulled out a key card. Ignoring the mop and bucket altogether, JC moved close behind her as she opened the door, then memorized the password she keyed into the alarm system.

"So should I come in, too?" he said off-handedly, leaning up against the doorjamb.

The woman looked at him in confusion. "What? Yes, of course. Come in," she said.

"Thank you," JC said politely, and then walked straight into the doorway, gripped her hard by the shoulders and slammed her into the wall. He lowered his head to her neck, gashing her throat messily so there would be lots of blood when they found her. It didn’t take long at all. Afterward, JC heaved her body back out to the van, cursing and staggering a little at her weight; then, he grabbed the key card from her pocket, entered the building once again, and stood absolutely still in the lower hallway of the motherhouse, looking slowly around and trying very hard not to laugh.

Long dark hallways and horrible, stuffy paintings, statues JC wouldn't have put in his basement; ridiculous, stupid Victorian trash. He moved calmly and surely through the house and listened carefully for the one heartbeat he was interested in. Upstairs -- Justin was somewhere on the second floor. As JC moved quickly toward the grand staircase at the front of the house, he noticed several security cameras tracking his progress. All that technology, and they still couldn’t prevent a vampire from stalking right into their precious motherhouse.

JC's feet were quiet on the stairs. It was calm and silent here, and they were all so vulnerable, all at his mercy. The feeling was very nearly intoxicating, and as he turned the corner and headed down the hallway toward Justin's room it grew even stronger, because now he could smell his sweat and his cologne, could hear the soft sighs he made in his sleep. JC breathed deeply and licked his lips in anticipation. This was going to be so, so gorgeous.

Midway down the hall JC caught his breath and slowly reached out to Justin with his mind, sifted gently through his thoughts. He was having light, whispery dreams -- random feelings and thoughts and shadowy figures flitting to and fro. Slowly, carefully, JC attempted to nudge Justin into giving him the security code to the alarm in his room. It was a difficult process, involving more effort than JC would have thought necessary, and again a grudging respect for Justin's mental defenses arose in him. However a sleeping Justin was apparently more pliable than an awake one, and after a while, JC had the numbers in his mind. JC reached Justin's door, entered the code, and then looked down and grinned as he heard the lock give way. Right before he entered Justin's room, JC let himself look pointedly at the security camera. It would be downright rude not to acknowledge the Order in some way.

JC walked first into what appeared to be a sitting room with a fireplace, a chair for reading, and bookcases lining the walls. There was a door at the far end of the room; JC moved quickly to it, inclining his head and listening for a moment. When he heard Justin sigh, desire rose up in JC like murder. He ignored it for the moment, however, and stepped quickly over to Justin's desk to look through the papers strewn across the top. No file, just boring, dry notes about Tahiti. The desk drawers revealed little else of interest: financial statements, a collection of letters from a woman, probably his mother, a long row of absolutely deadly boring articles on the paranormal. No wonder the kid was so desperate for action.

Once he finished with the desk, JC went quickly through a leather messenger bag sitting on a truly abhorrent chair -- more Victorian foolishness -- and drew out Justin's laptop and set it on the desk. The pockets on the front of the bag yielded pens, pencils, gum, and then, finally, Justin's wallet, shiny black leather worn soft by years of use and curved sweetly to fit his body. JC impatiently flipped it open and glanced at Justin's driver's license, learned that he was twenty-three years old, just over six feet tall, and that he was an organ donor. The Order would be glad to know that tonight when they found the body, JC thought with savage amusement. There were only two pictures in the wallet: one of a woman with curly hair much like Justin's, obviously his mother, and one of two small boys. There was a work permit, a few credit cards, a small amount of cash, a bus pass, and a ticket stub to a very bad movie that was playing downtown. Nothing of interest, and so JC sat the wallet on the edge of the desk, and then powered up the computer. Aside from the speedy wireless connection -- the house was old, but the technology was new -- JC again found nothing, nothing having to do with himself. If Justin were keeping notes on JC's file, they were hidden, and JC really didn't feel like hunting much more at this point. Justin could tell him what he needed to know.

For a moment, JC sat perfectly still at the desk; then, he slowly stood up and stretched languidly, closing his eyes in delight as his body strained in anticipation. Finally, he walked to the door, quietly opened it, and then moved to the side of the bed and gazed down. Justin was stretched out on his back, breathing lightly and easily, one arm curved up around his head, the other bent so that his hand rested neatly in the small of his back. JC looked greedily at his long neck, his jaw, and the soft skin at the base of his throat, and clenched his teeth, struggling for control. His mouth watered; Justin looked and smelled so beautiful. Then JC remembered the file and reluctantly drew back.

In sleep, Justin's defiance and arrogance melted away: now, his lips and legs were both parted, and his skin was smooth and pale in the soft light of the desk lamp. He had on a worn t-shirt that clung tightly to his chest and rode up slightly; JC gazed first at his flat stomach, and then at the soft hair that trailed downward from his navel, and then breathed quickly and deeply until he felt in control again. When Justin made a tiny, restless noise in his sleep and shifted a bit, JC moved quickly and silently to the desk chair and placed it at the side of the bed. For a while, he simply watched Justin sleep, took note of the rise and fall of his chest, the slow pounding of his heart, the regular rhythm of his breathing.

Then JC began to ask Justin about the file, nothing too harsh, nothing too upsetting, just general, easy questioning and encouragement. Justin shifted fitfully, again holding back, again refusing to release details. JC nudged him a little harder, then sat up very straight in his chair as a series of images began to appear: Justin walking down a set of stairs, a long dark hallway, and then, from Justin's point of view, a file that appeared to contain a picture of JC in it, a bad picture, JC noted in annoyance. He frowned because now Justin seemed to be looking at a book, an old leather bound book, and then it was a file again. JC longed to see more: other documents, the title of the file, more clues about where Justin had found it and how long ago, but the vision, and Justin, remained maddening, vague and fuzzy. JC pushed harder still, and the image expanded just a bit: Justin was in a large, dark room, and his hand pushed away the photograph to reveal another document, something that might or might not have said "Chasez Vampire" at the top. JC tried desperately to focus on it, but again the vision refused to coalesce into anything useful.

This wasn't going to work. JC hissed in annoyance and sifted through Justin's feelings instead, which was much easier work, and rather interesting as well. Justin was, it seemed, almost as obsessed with the file as JC was; he was dying with curiosity to get to it again, desperate with frustration. He had to know more about JC, had to find out everything about him that he could, had to get closer to him somehow, needed to. It didn't make sense and he didn't know why, but he couldn't stop himself.

JC drew in a long breath and closed his eyes as part of him recognized the feelings, identified with them, then shook his head fiercely to get rid of the thought. He was perhaps a little more forceful than he should have been when he tried to get Justin to tell him whether he really knew the location of JC's house, but he was starting to get well and truly annoyed, thoroughly sick of coyness. If Justin had the information, JC thought grimly, Justin was going to give it up. Justin's thoughts about JC's address yielded at first only a blank, and then, in the emotional register, something absolutely infuriating: amusement. Justin had actually taken pleasure in foiling JC in the bookstore. He was proud of himself.

Before JC knew it, he was a mere inches from Justin's neck, his entire body craving the kill. No one knew he was here: it was still and silent in the motherhouse, and if JC got in bed with Justin, he could spend hours with him, make this a very memorable experience. Oh, he wanted this; it was painful how much he wanted to take Justin. Gradually, rational thought returned, and JC frowned and drew back. He couldn't kill Justin until Justin had destroyed the file, and what was worse, JC wasn't completely sure the file was in this house at all. The Order had houses all over the world, and it was quite possible they'd moved it after Bobbie’s death.

JC considered waking Justin up right this moment and forcing him to reveal everything, thought about how empty the motherhouse was and how much easier it would be to get the information with Justin helping him. However, if he did that, then he'd have to kill Justin afterward so Justin couldn't raise the alarm, and if JC killed Justin, then, well . . . there would be no more Justin. And if there were no more Justin, then JC would be bored again, and that would be the absolute worst outcome of all. There was still so much to learn about Justin, so much fun to have with him. Plus, a dead Justin would never know about right now, never know how easily and boundlessly JC had moved through his rooms, his thoughts.

Well, maybe not his thoughts. JC thought again of Justin's amusement at holding back, and drew his brows together in annoyance. That was another reason not to kill him yet; first, he had to figure out a way to break into that mind. The best thing to do to Justin right now was not to kill him, which would be too sudden and too final, but rather to have him wake up tomorrow knowing that JC had been here, knowing that JC had taken advantage of him, that JC had bested him.

For a moment, JC exalted in his plan, but when he looked at the serene expression on Justin's face and the easy, relaxed position of his sleeping body, he suddenly wasn't so sure who had the upper hand. He needed something else, something to make this visit memorable for Justin. JC closed his eyes for a second so he could think, and then slowly opened them again and leaned over the bed. Smiling lazily, JC reached out to Justin's mind again, more intensely and more urgently than before, the images in his imagination spilling over in rich, dark, detail, going straight into Justin's dreams. Justin was receptive to this, and it wasn't long before his breathing quickened and he shifted a little fitfully, the hand over his head clenching once or twice, then releasing. JC caught his own breath and kept going, leaning forward to watch as Justin gasped once in his sleep, then softly moaned as a flush spread slowly down his throat and over his chest. His nipples erected, his mouth opened even further, and he restlessly turned his head from side to side on the pillow. By the time Justin's cock hardened and he lifted his hips from the bed, his entire body straining with want, JC was hard as well, breathing almost as raggedly as Justin was, spellbound by the beauty of his response. When Justin gasped raggedly and spread his legs, JC murmured, "Come on, Justin," and then watched in amazement as Justin cried out, shuddered, and came before collapsing back onto the sheets. JC stood up and looked down at him, hands aching with the desire to touch him, but it wasn't -- not this time. He'd save that pleasure for later.

But there was one thing he could do, one thing he'd allow himself. Bending over Justin one more time, JC slowly slipped something around his neck; then, he neatly grabbed one of the credit cards from Justin's wallet and headed out.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin awoke slowly the next morning, his head fuzzy, and then grimaced as he realized he'd come in his sleep last night. Groaning in annoyance, he quickly stepped into the bathroom and cleaned himself off, then went back into his room and stripped the bed. This was just embarrassing; this was something that happened to teenagers, not people in their twenties. As he bent over to fold the sheets into hospital corners, Justin frowned. He felt weak and sluggish, almost hung over, though he definitely hadn't been drinking last night. Aside from his fright in the bookstore, he'd actually had an incredibly uneventful evening. Justin lumbered off to pick up a pillow, slowly, experimentally running a hand up and over his chest as he did so. He was sore, he was really sore actually, and in places where -- well, in places where a person just shouldn't be sore unless he'd had pretty great sex. What in the world had happened to him?

After he'd smoothed out the last wrinkle in the clean sheets and double-checked to see that the old ones were at the bottom of his laundry hamper, Justin sat down gingerly on the side of the bed and tried to think. His head was groggy, his mind dull; it was almost as if he weren't really awake yet. He must have had some pretty powerful dreams last night, or maybe some sort of paranormal experience. Justin tried to remember all the stories he'd heard about spirits and ghosts in the motherhouse, but nothing interesting came to mind.

If he could just relax, he might be able to remember the dream. There had been something about the archives -- had he been dreaming about the picture again? Justin drew brows together, closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. He was also getting vague flashes of conversation -- okay, so he'd been dreaming about talking to JC about the location of his house, which only made sense given that he'd been talking about that with the real thing earlier in the night. And of course his mind would also have him talking to JC about the archives, because the archives were where all the good information about JC was. And JC would have been the person he'd talk to about this because sneaking into the archives scared Justin almost as much as JC did, and last night, JC had just about scared the living daylights out of Justin. He wasn't upset anymore, but of course he would have tried to work through it in his dream.

However, none of this made for a wet dream. Justin sighed. Okay. So obviously, he'd been a little preoccupied with JC lately -- it would be pretty stupid to deny that. But had his obsession gone that far already? He tried to go into an empty, receptive state, hoping that images from the dream would emerge. Eventually, they did, slowly at first, and then with such intensity they scared him. Justin felt himself flushing red all over as he remembered being almost beyond his mind with pleasure, his body aching and hungry, and JC right there, murmuring in his ear, asking him what felt good, telling him how good he looked, encouraging him to lift his shirt just a bit, to spread his legs just a little more.

With difficulty, Justin tore his mind away from the images, then groaned once and breathed deep. He was getting hard again, and the very last thing he needed to do at this point was indulge in more dreaming about JC. His subconscious mind might have been taken over, but there was no reason to give JC his waking thoughts as well.

Justin had had erotic dreams before, but there was something so much rawer about this one, so much more vivid. Truly, it was strange. Maybe he'd ask Chris about it, not, of course mentioning JC, but asking in general terms about unusually vivid dreams, about what caused them, how they could trick the body into believing it was feeling things it wasn't actually experiencing. But before he could do that, he should shower. Justin squinted at a spot on the carpet and bent over to pick up a dried leaf he'd probably tracked in last night. As he grasped it, something swung forward and bumped him on the chin, something around his neck -- a gold chain with a pendant. Justin sat up quickly, then pulled it out and examined it, murmuring to himself in confusion. It definitely wasn't his necklace -- he didn't own anything quite this old and quite this expensive. How on earth had it gotten there?

The craftsmanship really was exquisite: it was a ruby in a fairly exotic setting, very ornate though decidedly masculine: the chain was thick, and the design too heavy for women's jewelry. Justin would probably place it somewhere in the eighteenth century, and he again tried and failed to think of any ghosts or spirits from that era who were known to haunt the motherhouse. Fortunately, there were several people in the Order who had more knowledge than he did about both history and jewelry. Justin looked in admiration at the dark red of the stone, the beautifully wrought links of the chain. It was such a lovely piece that he was almost reluctant to surrender it for study. His brow wrinkled in curiosity, he turned the pendant over to look at the back of the setting. There was something etched into it, and Justin moved quickly to the bathroom so he could peer at the script under the bright lights.

Just about the time he realized that he was staring at the initials JSC rendered in mirror image, the pounding on his door began.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin watched the security tape of JC's walk through the halls of the Order so compulsively that they finally forbid him to look at it again. By that time, however, it was imprinted on his mind: JC walking easily, unhurriedly, down the corridors, not bothering to evade or acknowledge cameras, his movements graceful, catlike, economical, and then JC neatly climbing the stairs to Justin's room. At one point in the hallway, JC had closed his eyes for a few seconds and inclined his head a little bit. "He's probably reaching into your mind for your security code," Chris said when he saw it, thus confirming for everyone how weak Justin was, what an easy mark. The next clip on the camera showed JC heading straight to Justin's room and keying in the numbers to his lock, then turning his head and giving the camera a head-on glance with just a little smile, a taunting one, before he stepped into Justin's room and closed the door again. Then, JC had done things to Justin in his room and nobody knew what and it was awful, but at least it hadn't been captured on camera. The final image on the Order's security tapes showed JC bursting out of the French doors in Justin's room and stepping out onto the balcony, satisfaction written all over his face, before jumping gracefully down to the ground and slowly ambling off again. He didn't even have the decency to look hurried.

It had been a humiliating day. Justin had been thoroughly examined, prodded, and poked until the medical staff of the motherhouse was absolutely certain he had not been violated in any physical way when JC was in his room, and now they were threatening hypnosis and regression therapy too, wanting to get inside Justin's mind for more details. Justin had balked outright at that, and while they were disappointed, they hadn't forced him, either -- that wasn't how things operated at the Order. As he passed his colleagues in the halls, Justin took special care to conceal his thoughts -- not that anyone would ever intentionally violate his privacy, but he was worried about broadcasting. There were certain things about this experience he definitely wanted to keep to himself: Justin hadn't spoken a word about the wet dream, and he sure as hell wasn't going to tell them about the necklace.

They had probably all guessed about the sexual attraction, though. "Vampires are very seductive," one of the senior members had said in an understanding voice during the first conference call about the security breach. "And when they fixate on a human, as this one seems to have done with you, they'll go to great lengths to get to him, to draw him in. So whatever might have happened to you in that room was not your fault, Justin. You should not be ashamed."

As if conversations like that weren't unbearable enough, Justin was beset with deep grief in addition to his embarrassment. Two completely innocent people had died because of his obsession. "It's not your fault," Chris had said softly, but Justin knew better. He might not have meant to make JC snap, but he certainly had wanted to taunt him, to infuriate him. Now, JC had paid him back in full.

"You must avoid him at all costs," Justin heard over and over again. "Any move you make toward him will be interpreted as an invitation, and the very last thing you want is for him to become even more interested in you. He could attack your family, your friends, or threaten you with violence unless you agree to become his victim. The best thing for you to do at this point is stay as far away from him as possible."

Chris had of course reported Justin's forays to the restricted archives once the break-in had been discovered, only being Chris, he'd explained it as an accident, something for which JC and not Justin was responsible. When it came out that Justin had spoken to JC in the bookstore, the look of shock and hurt on Chris's face had been hard to bear.

He'd ruined everything. His already unstable relationship with Chris was even more precarious, and any new-formed trust his colleagues might have had for him was demolished. Worst of all, people had died because of his stupidity -- people had been annihilated because of his obsession.

He was now confined to the motherhouse at night, allowed out only for emergencies, and this was only until they could get him on a plane back home to Tennessee. They weren't exactly kicking him out, but they did want him to spend some time alone to think carefully about his priorities and options, to reconsider his role within the Order and his behavior as a novice.

That night, Justin collapsed fully clothed onto the bed in a guest room (the Order's forensics team was still busy taking apart his room) and then slowly drew out the pendant JC had given him, gently turned it in his hands and watched the blood-red ruby glow in the light. It was strangely soothing to touch it, to hold it -- the one small degree of peace Justin had had all day. He wanted to sleep -- longed to, actually, but each time he closed his eyes, he felt the dream again, was reminded that JC had almost at will shattered the sanctity of his home and his mind. Maybe he really was out of control. Maybe it would be best to step back from this obsession for a while.

~ ~ ~ ~

It was late afternoon on a weekday, and the international concourse was almost deserted. Justin watched the rain hit the window, obscuring the planes taxiing up and down the long runways. He closed his eyes and leaned forward, elbows on his knees as he took a long, slow breath.

Was it possible that only a few short weeks ago he’d been so confident that the next time he used his passport it would be go to some exciting destination on Order business? He hadn’t been imagining it, and he was certain even now that his talents and dedication could be huge assets to the Order, that he could do wonderful work, that his rise through the ranks would be meteoric. He’d been so sure that the great and interesting projects were right around the corner, that his future was bright and certain. Never in a million years would he have thought that being sent home in disgrace was the next item on his career agenda.

Not in disgrace, he corrected himself wearily, recalling the senior member’s words. A small sabbatical, she’d said, her voice kind and compassionate. He’d had a terribly traumatic experience, something far too intense for such a young member of the Order. And while it was true that he felt terrible about the deaths, sick with a huge, guilt-stricken horror, he didn’t understand how sending him away would help that. Clearly the solution was to let him stay, let him re-open the files on JC Chasez and learn about the vampire. But she’d cut him off when he started to argue, to try to persuade the senior members that this was an incredible opportunity that should be taken advantage of. Perhaps a once in a lifetime one. The vampire was interested in Justin, enough to make contact with him, and research and learning was what the Order was all about.

The seniors had been sympathetic, but essentially unmoved. Justin was admonished to remember that such fascinations were simply a manifestation of the vampire’s hypnotic skills. The Chasez vampire was trying to draw him in, they said sternly, and if he thought any of his ideas about undertaking the study himself were good ones, it was an indication that he was already too far in. Justin felt another flush of shame at the memory, embarrassment and resentment. They hadn’t even listened to him, he thought dully, angrily. They’d made up their minds before he’d even opened his mouth. It was so monstrously unfair.

Justin sighed again, shifting in the uncomfortable plastic seat, stretching his arms up and rolling his neck until it cracked. The pendant dropped back against his skin, smooth and warm and welcoming underneath his thin sweater. He touched his fingers to where it rested beneath the smooth cotton, pressing it into the skin of his chest.

"Look, it’s not forever, you know." Chris’s voice was uncharacteristically quiet, but his leg bounced in agitation as he sat beside Justin. "Really, it won’t be long at all. You’ll be back before you know it. It’s not like you’ve been kicked out of the Order, they just want some distance between you and the Chasez vampire. A little time, a little distance." He motioned vaguely, uselessly, before dropping his hand back to his vibrating knee. "It’ll be nice to see your family, though, right?"

Justin kept his eyes on the rain streaming hard against the window. It was tough to see through the clouds, but it was getting definitely getting darker. "Well, I was just home at Christmas," he said, quietly, and heard Chris sigh.

"Justin," he started, and Justin sat up abruptly.

"It’s okay, Chris. Really." He nodded firmly, rubbing his hands briskly on his knees. "You know what? You don’t need to wait here with me, man. I mean, the plane’s already been delayed once, it’s raining. It could be hours yet."

Chris regarded him silently. "I don’t know, man. I don’t want to leave you here, sitting by yourself."

Justin turned his head slowly, meeting Chris’s eyes. "You don’t need to worry about me," he said, unsmilingly. "Seriously. I’m fine. "You should probably be getting back, Chris. I’m sure you didn’t expect to be stuck here this long." He waited until he had Chris’s full attention, until the eyes focused on him and he could feel Chris’s concern prodding lightly at the edges of his mind. Justin made certain that he revealed absolutely nothing as he cocked one eyebrow and nodded at the window. "And it is getting dark."

They stared at each other for a moment, then Chris laughed uneasily. He slapped Justin on the shoulder and stood up. "Alright man. Call me, okay? And you’ll be back before you know it, I promise."

Justin smiled, broad and false, watching as Chris winced a little. "Sure thing." He watched Chris walk down the concourse, nodding at him when he turned a corner and waved. Justin heaved a deep breath and relaxed with a sigh that was more of a groan.

Finally. After days and days of tension and fear, days of feeling guilty, disloyal, angry, frustrated, days of constant vigilance about hiding his thoughts and the never ending certainty that he was being watched, worried about, judged. Finally he was alone, and the relief was overwhelming.

He checked the departures monitor - a delay of almost two hours, now – and walked slowly over to the window, watching his reflection against the steadily darkening glass. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and made fists, resisting the temptation to reach up and touch the heavy pendant under his sweater for what felt like the thousandth time in the last two days.

The rain beat down, distorting the lights of London in the distance. He stared soberly as the gloom gathered and the lights gradually grew brighter. Somewhere behind the thick gray clouds the sun has disappeared beneath the horizon, he thought disjointedly. Somewhere out there JC was awake. His breath hitched at the thought, and he cursed himself tiredly.

What would it be like? he wondered, leaning his forehead against the cool glass. To wake up to darkness and artificial lights, to never see the sun or to have another normal meal? To live your life at night, to hunt other living creatures for food?

He closed his eyes, feeling the coolness of the glass against his brow, soothing. What would it be like to walk unafraid through the dangerous places of the world? To be young, and strong and beautiful forever? To have absolute control over your own destiny and to never again be forced to do something you didn’t want to do?

He realized that his heart was pounding, his breath harsh in his throat. The window in front of him was fogged, and as Justin stepped back he saw his own reflection, bright against the now dark window. His eyes were huge, his mouth straight and set and his face pale, and his hand was over his chest, clasping tightly at the pendant under his thick blue sweater. He examined the even proportions of his face, the full lips, the blue eyes. The short cropped hair, the long, lean outline of his own body, and thought this is what JC sees. He stared for a long, hushed moment, feeling his heart beat, his blood push through his veins.

Abruptly he spun around, heading for a deserted corner of the airport’s lounge and pulling the pendant from under his sweater with hands that trembled. Turning toward the weak fluorescent lighting, he examined it closely.

It was old; even he could tell that much. The stone was brilliant and seemingly flawless, but the cut was an old-fashioned one, as was the heavy setting around it. Justin’s fingers traced its bright oval, caressing it smoothly as he thought about the dream, about JC’s sharp blue eyes and the way they looked him over in the club, in the bookstore, out of the portrait. His breath caught as he turned the pendant over, rubbed his fingers over the old, old fancy monogramming that said "CSJ."

Dimly he heard the announcement that his flight from London to Baltimore had been delayed yet again, but when he lifted his eyes he was in front of a monitor displaying available flights to Paris. No delays there, in fact there was one leaving in twenty minutes. He ran his fingers around the shape of the pendant, feeling the sharp edges and the smooth ones, seeing the antique engraved letters on the back. He breath grew short again, his heart pounding frantically as he stared, and considered, and decided.

They hadn’t told him he had to go home, he thought as he started to pace again, moving faster and faster down the deserted concourse. They’d strongly suggested some distance from London, that was all. A little time, a little distance, just until things calmed down. He heard their platitudes in his head again, their careful calm voices, and his hand gripped the necklace tightly, feeling its edges gouge deeply into his palm.

He left the pendant out, swinging freely across his chest as he walked, then ran to the ticket window to change his flight.